Was David Bowie's "Heroes" really based on a true story?

18 October 2020, 17:00

David Bowie in 1978
David Bowie in 1978. Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Was the classic song inspired by two lovers kissing at the Berlin Wall? Or did it all come from Bowie's imagination?

"Heroes" has become David Bowie's ultimate anthem. It's widely considered to be the musician's greatest work, with a timeless theme and epic quality that has grown over the years. In 2020, Radio X listeners voted it to Number 8 in our annual Best Of British poll.

But "Heroes" wasn't always given such acclaim. When released as a single in September 1977, the song only made it to Number 24 in the charts. NME reviewer Charlie Gillett said of Bowie: "I think his time has been and gone, and this just sounds weary."

"Heroes" is a song which has grown in reputation. And as the years have gone by, we've discovered more about how the track was created and what inspired the lyrics.

Take this image for example: "I can remember standing, by the wall / And the guns shot above our heads / And we kissed, as though nothing could fall."

It's well known that Bowie recorded the "Heroes" album at the Hansa Tonstudios in Berlin, West Germany, during the period that the city was divided by the wall. The image of doomed lovers keeping their relationship alive while forces around them tried to stop them was a startling one - and very relevant for the Cold War period that would last until the wall came toppling down in 1989.

Although Low, "Heroes" and Lodger are considered to be Bowie's "Berlin trilogy", only "Heroes" was completely recorded in the city. He'd retreated to the European city to get away from the bad influences of Los Angeles and began working with his friend Iggy Pop and musical collaborators Brian Eno and Robert Fripp.

Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and David Bowie in Hansa&squot;s Tonstudio during the making of "Heroes", summer 1977
Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and David Bowie in Hansa's Tonstudio during the making of "Heroes", summer 1977. Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The story goes that Bowie wrote the lyric while looking out of the control room window in the studio. Hansa's Tonstudio facility was stood right next to a section of the wall, being situated at Köthener Straße No 38 in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin.

Bowie spotted two lovers kissing next to the imposing structure, which had sentry posts situated right above them. It was a clear metaphor on how life and love could still flourish in the middle of a brutal situation.

But who were the lovers? Tony Visconti was the producer on "Heroes", having worked with Bowie for the best part of the decade. He was married to the Welsh musician Mary Hopkin at the time, but had met German singer Antonia Maass at a club in Berlin.

Tony Visconti and Mary Hopkin pictured in 1972
Tony Visconti and Mary Hopkin pictured in 1972. Picture: Trevor James Robert Dallen/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Bowie and Visconti discovered her band The Messengers were also recording at Hansa Tonstudio and Maass contributed vocals to the album, most notably on the opening track Beauty And The Beast. Visconti told biographer David Buckley: "Yes, Antonia and i were interested in each other, and we left David alone that afternoon, so he could have some quiet to write lyrics to the title track."

"The control room window faced a forsaken empty lot, with the ubiquitous Wall looming in the distance." Visconti recalled the notes to the 2017 Bowie box set A New Career In A New Town. "Antonia and I had a coffee and walked around a bit but didn’t go very far as it felt unsafe. We stopped beneath the control room window to look at the Wall.

"We had a little chat about it that somehow turned into a little snog. We chatted some more and then returned to the studio. When we returned David was now beaming with a certain Bowie smile, like the cat that ate the canary. Obviously the song was finished."

Bowie's loyal assistant Coco Schwab told Visconti: "You two are in the song".

Because Visconti was married at the time, he explained in interviews that the couple were unknown to him to spare any drama. "There’s a turret on top of the wall where the guards sit and during the course of lunch break every day, a boy and girl would meet out there and carry on." he told the NME in September 1977.

"They were obviously having an affair. And I thought of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the wall?

"I presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty about this affair and so they had imposed this restriction on themselves, thereby giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act. I used this as a basis… therefore it is ironic."

Hansa-Tonstudios recording studio in Berlin in 2013
Hansa-Tonstudios recording studio in Berlin in 2013. Picture: JENS KALAENE/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

Visconti and Hopkin divorced in 1981, allowing Bowie to reveal his inspiration a couple of decades later. "Tony was married at the time, and I could never say who it was," he told Performing Songwriter in 2003. "I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship that motivated the song."

But was this actually the case? Writer Tobias Rüther in his 2008 book Helden spoke to Maass, who claimed that she and Visconti were not a couple at the time that "Heroes" was recorded. "Besides," writes Rüther, "they would also both have made sure later on that no one found out about them."

"No way was it it us," Antonia Maass emphatically told the writer.

The Berlin Wall in January 1978
The Berlin Wall in January 1978. Picture: Art Selby/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images

Whatever the truth of the matter, "Heroes" had many other inspirations, which demonstrate how David Bowie could craft a compelling fiction from a number of different influences. In Berlin's Brücke-Museum there was a painting called Lovers Between Garden Walls by the artist Otto Mueller.

In the foreword to his wife's book I Am Iman in 2001, Bowie acknowledged the inspiration of a short story called A Grave For A Dolphin, written by Alberto Denti di Pirajno in 1956. It's about a relationship between an Italian soldier and a Somalian girl in World War II and a dolphin that she swims with. Bowie wrote: "I thought it a magical and beautiful love story and in part it had inspired my song 'Heroes'."

Brian Eno sums up the appeal of "Heroes" perfectly. "It's a beautiful song," he told Q magazine in 2007. "But incredibly melancholy at the same time. We can be heroes, but actually we know that something's missing, something's lost."